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Cultural Historian’s Unusual Advice for Cash-Strapped Astronomers

August 25, 2013

By ANS   

He admits it’s a whimsical suggestion, but cultural historian and author John Michael Greer has some advice for cash-strapped astronomers who’ve been feeling the pinch in the current economic slowdown.

In an article for The Archdruid Report, his online newsletter, Greer describes a troubling scenario for progress-oriented star gazers.

“An observatory big and high-tech enough to contribute significantly to the advance of astronomy can be a very expensive proposition,” he observes.

For example, he says the Palomar Observatory outside San Diego costs more than $10,000 U.S. dollars a night to operate.  The ebbing tide of prosperity in the industrial world is starting to make these costs hard to cover, he suggests.

In the U.S., the National Science Foundation has proposed to delete the funding for six government-funded observatories. And many observatories owned by universities are facing funding cuts or closure as a result of similar pressures, he reports.

“Observatories are particularly vulnerable in this context because they don’t make a profit for anybody.  At a time when computer science and molecular biology departments at many universities increasingly operate as commercial enterprises, churning out patentable products to line the pockets of professors and university administrators alike, astronomers have got to be feeling like the red-headed stepchildren of academe,” he asserts, adding:

“No matter how excited they and their colleagues may be about discovering a new type of quasar or what have you, the discovery’s not going to make them or their university any money. University administrators are just as aware of this difference as the astronomers are.”

Twisting in the Wind?

Greer writes that the sciences are being sorted out into two camps: those that produce technologies useful to government and business and those that don’t.  It’s not hard to figure out which of these camps is getting the lion’s share of research dollars these days, and which is being left to “twist in the wind.”

He whimsically suggests that astronomers do have another potential source of income available to them – a funding source “that could probably support many if not most of the existing observatories in the style to which they’ve become accustomed.”

Granted, his economic argument may overstate the case a bit.  But Greer claims astronomers have a shot at becoming completely independent of government grants and the whims of university administrators.

All they would need to do is rediscover the funding source for several of history’s most important astronomical projects.  A certain number of grad students would need to get some additional training, but the desired makeover could be done with equipment that can be found in any observatory.

“It is as simple as it is elegant, really.  All that would be required is that the observatory staff would learn how to cast and interpret horoscopes,” he claims.

Fulminations and wishful thinking…

According to Greer, despite the fulminations and wishful thinking of the rationalists among us, astrology is not going to go away any time soon.  It’s been a living tradition for well over two millennia in close to its current form and is as lively now as its ever been.

“The rationalist crusade against it has been a resounding flop, having failed to make the least dent in its popularity.  Astrology today supports its own economic sector of publishers, computer firms, annual conferences, correspondence schools and many other businesses, not to mention thousands of professional astrologers who make a living casting birth charts for a large and enthusiastic clientele,” he said.

Greer points out that astronomers casting horoscopes is hardly a new idea.  Johannes Kepler paid the bills while he was working out the laws of planetary motion by casting horoscopes.  And more than a millennium earlier Claudius Ptolemy did the same thing while writing the Almagest, the most influential treatise on astrology ever penned.

“Not only could modern day astronomers tap into this (the astrology) market, it actually takes a continuing effort on their part to avoid doing so,” Greer claims.

“I’ve been told by astronomer friends that observatories in the U.S. routinely field calls from people who are a little confused about the difference between astronomy and astrology and want someone to cast their horoscopes,” he said.

Of course, this is a most unlikely scenario. As Greer puts it, in today’s America, “astronomers will embrace astrology on the same day that atheistic soul mates Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins fall on their knees and accept Jesus as their lord and savior.

Laborers in a great cause?

“Scientists have been encouraged to think of themselves as laborers in the great cause of progress, leading humanity forward out of the superstitious past and toward a brighter and better future of ever-increasing reason, knowledge and power.”

Greer says this is the image of themselves that scientists by and large tend to project into the wider society, with varying degrees of success.  But this kind of acting out of an ideal can be a dangerous thing to do.

Greer explains his position more fully in his article, Not Written in the Stars, which can be read here in its entirety.

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